Jack of All Trades, Master of None: Is this still true in the world we live today?

The jack of all trades is seldom good at any.
-Napoleon Hill

I’m sure most of us have heard this figure of speech at some point in our lives, but is it still true? Given the world we live in today, I’m not so sure it is. Let’s explore.

Jack of all Trades, Master of None is traditionally used to refer to a person skillful, competent or focused in different areas, but not necessary great in any particular one because they’re “stretched thin and focused on too many things”.

The phrase dates back to the 14th century where people were skilled in different trades (i.e. steeplejacks, sailors, blacksmiths, etc) — so the phrase didn’t carry a negative connotation initially, just used to describe the common-man. Somewhere along the way, it became synonymous with a person stretching themselves thin and lacking the ability to produce value.

So theoretically speaking, the jack of all trades is a generalist versus a specialist. But does it really make sense for us to spend the rest of our lives mastering one skill given the pace of technological change and disruption today? I would argue no and here’s why:

1. Learning isn’t a zero sum activity. Just because you pick up a new skill, doesn’t mean the skills you’ve previously acquired suddenly diminish or disappear. Learning how to ride a bike isn’t going to diminish your ability to throw a baseball well. Or learning how to code isn’t going to suddenly decrease your ability to manage a project effectively. We ALL have the propensity to be talented across different areas (most people just choose not to explore or exploit their talents — but that’s another topic for another day).

2. Solely focusing on being a specialist in one skill or area comes with an opportunity cost. That cost being the lack of time to acquire knowledge across a range of disciplines. Let’s say you’re in the field of web development and you possess the ability to do everything from identity design to user interface design to javascript coding. Just because you make a decision to focus solely on coding, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to now become a phenomenal coder. Greatness doesn’t automatically happen. Even in one skill, greatness takes time, practice, energy and commitment (i.e. the 10,000 hour rule). I would even argue that focusing on a sole specialization in one area actually has a detrimental effect, meaning you’re only thinking, producing and creating solutions from one perspective (unless you’re an astrophysicist for NASA, then it’s probably better that you’re a specialist).

But seriously: would you rather perfect how you build an amazing front door better and better each year? Or learn how to build the door and the rest of the house in the same amount of time, while also figuring out how to sell the house and hire/train the right team to build more houses for you?

We have to rethink this idea that greatness can only happen if you’re solely focused on execution in one area.

  • Bill Gates didn’t focus solely on programming, did his vision for product development, philanthropy and innovation suffer?
  • Kanye West doesn’t focus solely on producing music, does this mean the rest of his creative talents are not good?
  • Oprah didn’t just focus on just being a talk show host, does this mean her acting, philanthropic and entrepreneurial pursuits suffered as a result?

So if you’re an individual with different skills, keep working to develop them. Given the pace of change in society, I’m confident that the people focused on developing a range of skills are going to thrive amidst all the disruption. Why? Because they’ll have the ability to adapt, navigate and create value in different areas. So why focus on one thing? Strive to be multifaceted — your future depends on it. Just make sure you develop at least one thing you’re really, really good at and let that be your anchor to build around.

And if you’re a company sourcing talent, think about it this way: Let’s say you’re trying to create a championship contending team, would you build with a generalist like LeBron James (who can do a number of different things well) or a specialist like Kyle Korver (who’s a lights out three point shooter)? While you may need both skill sets, which one is going to help you get over the hump and contend?

#AlwaysBeCreating

LeKeith Taylor is a consumer focused brand strategist, marketer and creative who leverages his talents to bring ideas to life, create solutions, engage consumers and drive value. LeKeith has worked on the brand side, agency side and independently with companies like Nike, Converse, Beats by Dre, MetLife, Home Depot, Land Rover and Roc Nation Sports.

View his collective works & experiences here.